Where is the oil going?
The oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has steadily taken its toll on the waters of the gulf and surrounding coastlines. However, the prevailing currents will not allow the oil to be stationary. The Loop Current, which is a clockwise current in the Gulf that originates from Caribbean waters that flow north along the Yucatan, around the Gulf, and out to the Atlantic, will bring the oil around the southern tip of Florida. Then, the stronger Gulf Stream current will take it along the eastern seaboard and deep into the North Atlantic by as early as mid-July.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) constructed a detailed computer model which outlines the possible trajectory of oil from the moment of the Deepwater Horizon rig sinking to late August. The model is not meant to be a forecast, but merely a possible scenario for the oil dispersal.
The NCAR project was funded by the National Science Foundation and was managed by the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research. The results of the research show the scope of the problem to be much vaster than many predicted.
"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Will the oil reach Florida?'" says NCAR scientist Synte Peacock, who worked on the study. "Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood."
The computer modeling used is analogous to dropping virtual dye into the water and watching its pathway. However, the virtual dye does not have the same characteristics of oil. It has the same weight and density as water, does not coagulate, and cannot be broken down by bacteria or other forces. This is why the research team emphasized that this model is not a true forecast, just a possible scenario.
On the other hand, the prediction of the range of the oil dispersal is more confident because the existing ocean currents are well understood. The timing for the model relies greatly on the configuration of the Loop Current as well as the overlying atmosphere which determines the wind intensity. Once the Loop Current brings the oil around Florida, the Gulf Stream will pick it up and spread the oil throughout the North Atlantic.
The reason the oil has not moved much in the one and a half months since the spill began is because it occurred in a stagnant area of the Gulf. However, the model predicts that the dispersal speed will increase to 40 miles per day in the Loop Current. The Gulf Stream Current will carry it at 100 miles per day.
Studies of what will happen to the oil once it is in the Atlantic are under way, such as whether or not it will affect the shores of Europe. According to Martin Visbeck, member of the research team, the oil should biodegrade and be dispersed enough through lateral mixing, that its levels should be reduced below harmful concentrations along European beaches.
Concentrations of oil in the Gulf Stream, particularly the further north it goes, should be much less than that found currently in the Gulf of Mexico.